Government Seizures Victimize Innocent

       By Andrew Schneider and Mary Pat Flaherty

Part One: The Overview

February 27, 1991. // Willie Jones, a second-generation nursery man in
his family's Nashville business, bundles up money from last year's
profits and heads off to buy flowers and shrubs in Houston. He makes
this trip twice a year using cash, which the small growers prefer. //
But this time, as he waits at the American Airlines gate in Nashville
Metro Airport, he's flanked by two police officers who escort him into a
small office, search him and seize the $9,600 he's carrying. A ticket
agent had alerted the officers that a large black man had paid for his
ticket in bills, unusual these days. Because of the cash, and the fact
that he fit a ``profile'' of what drug dealers supposedly look like,
they believed he was buying or selling drugs. // He's free to go, he's
told. But they keep his money -- his livelihood -- and give him a
receipt in its place. // No evidence of wrongdoing was ever produced. No
charges were ever filed. As far as anyone knows, Willie Jones neither
uses drugs, nor buys or sells them. He is a gardening contractor who
bought an airplane ticket. Who lost his hard-earned money to the cops.
And can't get it back.

That same day, an ocean away in Hawaii, federal drug agents arrive at
the Maui home of retirees Joseph and Frances Lopes and claim it for the
U.S. government. // For 49 years, Lopes worked on a sugar plantation,
living in its camp housing before buying a modest home for himself, his
wife, and their adult, mentally disturbed son, Thomas. // For a while,
Thomas grew marijuana in the back yard -- and threatened to kill himself
every time his parents tried to cut it down. In 1987, the police caught
Thomas, then 28. He pleaded guilty, got probation for his first offense
and was ordered to see a psychologist once a week. He has, and never
again has grown dope or been arrested. The family thought this episode
was behind them. // But earlier this year, a detective scouring old
arrest records for forfeiture opportunities realized the Lopes house
could be taken away because they had admitted they knew about the
marijuana. // The police department stands to make a bundle. If the
house is sold, the police get the proceeds.

Jones and the Lopes family are among the thousands of Americans each
year victimized by the federal seizure law -- a law meant to curb drugs
by causing financial hardship to dealers. // A 10-month study by The
Pittsburgh Press shows the law has run amok. In their zeal to curb drugs
and sometimes fill their coffers with the proceeds of what they take,
local cops, federal agents and the courts have curbed innocent
Americans' civil rights. From Maine to Hawaii, people who are never
charged with a crime had cars, boats, money and homes taken away. // In
fact, 80 percent of the people who lost property to the federal
government were never charged. And most of the seized items weren't the
luxurious playthings of drug barons, but modest homes and simple cars
and hard-earned savings of ordinary people. // But those goods generated
$2 billion for the police departments that took them. // The owners'
only crimes in many of these cases: They ``looked'' like drug dealers.
They were black, Hispanic or flashily dressed. // Others, like the
Lopeses, have been connected to a crime by circumstances beyond their
control. // Says Eric Sterling, who helped write the law a decade ago as
a lawyer on a congressional committee: ``The innocent-until-proven-

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